"You enjoyed my daughter's company, did you not, Juliet?"
Sterling considered exactly how much to mention-of course, God knew the answer, she knew everything. "Yes," she said, "I did. She's a lovely young woman-" How much should she say? God did get...volatile on this subject, and of course her punishments were wondrous but they were still often very painful. "Beautiful. Almost as beautiful as you." Though was beautiful even the right word to describe God?
"Indeed," Maria said. "And she tempted you, didn't she?"
Sterling considered what exactly would count as temptation. Certainly she had wanted young Libretto's body, her soul...even considered...
She had been tempted, yes. But she had surely remained true to her God. Of course she had-but before she could say so, Maria pulled her in by her hair, yanking hard. "I heard what you told her. She may have passed your tests, but you told her far too much. And to give her the key?" She twisted her hair painfully in her grip. "You went too far, Juliet."
She released her, and Sterling knew what she wanted. She knelt before her, looking up at her radiance. "I beg forgiveness, Maria-she had earned it, and she was so lovely, her words so sweet, and I was tempted from your path. She tempted me, but you are the one I serve, you are my God and my guidance. I love you. Tell me, please, what penance must I take to be forgiven for this? Do as you will with me."
She saw Maria's mouth soften slightly into a smile. Sterling knew that her true pleasure came not from her servant, but from the worship tended to her-for a God that none else considered divine, being treated as she should rightfully be could be her joy. "Pretty words as always, Juliet. But this must be paid for in deed."
Sterling felt her familiar surge of dread and arousal-God's punishments were always brutal, and yet she welcomed them all. Attention from God was exhilarating in that it was from her, no matter how much pain came with it. "Of course," she said breathlessly, clasping her hands before her in prayer. She saw Maria's little frown-Maria, she knew, preferred visible repentance, to see pain and fear and reluctance rather than worshipful joy when she punished those who defied her. But she could not, even to please her, show reluctance to the woman who defined her life.
She withdrew a knife-was she keeping it for the main performance? The idea of killing a woman as tasteful and lovely as Libretto sent a twist of something unfamiliar through her stomach, and her guilt flared up again-how could she think something like that!? Maria was all that mattered, though temptation was as easy as ever.
God sensed the sin in her mind, as ever. "Were you worrying about her?"
"Shamefully, yes. I...I beg that you forgive me. She is your blood, but-"
"Hmm." She took Sterling's chin in her hand, looking down on her from high. "Pretty young things tempt you so easily. You'll find another. One that will not be a distraction."
She bowed her head. "I am sorry, Maria. They're nothing to you, of course-"
She chuckled. "I know, I know." Maria drew the point of the blade up Sterling's cheek, pushing it in just enough to draw a few drops of blood. "A pretty face really does turn your head, doesn't it, Juliet? And I suppose that looking like me doesn't hurt...still." She stopped at the apex of her cheekbone, and Sterling realized. She was going to take her eye.
Maria had always stopped short of permanent maimings before. The implication that God was going to set her free, set them all free so soon was a joyous thought, but...she was afraid. No. Be not afraid, they said in the Bible, which was wrong on far too many counts, a pale shadow compared to the merciless light of Maria Agostini. But she would not fear. She could not be afraid of her God's love.
She leaned her head back. "Take it."
She saw the faint frown on Maria's face before half of her vision went red.
She screamed-not in joy, but in pain at the mortification of her flesh. It hurt, more than anything Maria or her parents had done to her before, a raw blade being stabbed into her nerves and a fire in her face, but it was from Maria. It was from Maria.
She twisted the knife, and Sterling screamed again, this time able to focus on the face before her, as horribly beautiful as an avenging angel-perfect in form, punishing those who strayed.
Maria pulled the knife out, the white orb of her eyeball impaled upon it, dripping the same blood that dripped down the side of her face like tears. She saw the veins that went through it, red and weeping, the ripped fragments of nerves.
Maria's fingers dug into her cheek. "You will not pass out," she ordered, and Sterling obeyed, because she could do nothing else when an order came from Maria's beautiful voice. She breathed hard, her vision flickering, agony throbbing through her body as she stared up at her God.
Maria slid a finger into the fresh wound where her eye had been and she could not suppress another scream at the dizzying pain, shaking on her knees and gasping for breath. Her hands were clutching at each other tightly enough that they hurt. A desperate groan came from her mouth as Maria's fingers began to probe-a groan of both agony and of the ecstasy that came from her God deigning to touch her. The heel of Maria's boot pressed into her thigh as her other hand held her face, preventing Sterling from looking at anything but her.
Not that she needed guidance in that. She could look at Maria for eternity.
There was a wet, meaty noise as Maria withdrew her fingers from the wound. She did not release Sterling, who trembled before her. "I absolve you," she said.
Sterling released her white-knuckled grip to trace the cross on her chest with fingers trembling from pain.